Is Standing with Israel Standing with a Violent Oppressor?

In the United States, there is widespread support for Israel, owing to both a longtime American-Israeli alliance, and empathy concerning both the intimate Christian-Jewish historical connection and the Nazi Holocaust (the long history of Christian atrocities against the Jews before the Second World War is either unknown or ignored). A February 2016 Gallup poll showed 62% of Americans sympathize more with Israelis than Palestinians, while the opposite is true for only 15%. The factors that influence such support can make it easy to view Israel as “the good guy” regardless of its actions, quite similar to the black-and-white vision of American foreign policy, where the U.S. is a hero no matter its actual motivations for violence or how many innocent people it kills.

When considering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, several things must be kept in mind. First, nations with an official state religion historically tend to mistreat and marginalize citizens that do not follow the official dogma. Second, more powerful states tend to be able to cause more widespread destruction and death than smaller powers. Finally, terrorist violence tends to be a reaction to both the first and second points — a violent response to mistreatment, dehumanization, invasions, occupations, bombings, and so on.

The land that is called Israel today was long ruled by Muslim powers like the Ottoman Empire, until the end of World War I, when the Allied Powers, principally Britain and France, dissolved the Ottoman state and carved up the Middle East for themselves. Israel, called Palestine then, was a place Jews, Muslims, and many other religious people had lived together for centuries, not always peaceably, not always at odds. Britain, however, favored the Jews, and went along with mounting pressure from Zionist groups that had organized in the late 1890s to create a national homeland for Judaism — that is, a religious state, regardless of the pesky Muslims and other religionists that currently also lived there.

After World War II and the Holocaust, support for a Jewish state grew immensely among Western powers, particularly the U.S. Zionist groups grew stronger. So in 1947, the U.N. crafted a plan to give most of Palestine to the Jews. This sparked violent uprisings from Palestinians, and then the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949 after the Jews of Palestine declared their independence and formed Israel — which of course was the vast majority of Palestine, per the U.N. plan. The Jews, backed by the U.S. and the West, won the war. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from the country by Jewish forces.

Israel had its state, and the Arabs who hadn’t fled the war and become refugees in neighboring countries found themselves in one of two places: either within the official borders of the new Jewish state, or in Gaza or the West Bank, the land of Palestine left to them.

After the Six Day War of 1967, Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians fought for decades to push the Israeli military out, and while in 2005 a victory was won when Israel agreed to end its occupation of Gaza, the State still controls over 60% of the West Bank, by force. So 40% of the West Bank is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but this does not allow us to disregard the fact that this leaves hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, many who want their own state, under military occupation. Palestinians who want nationhood and self-determination face an increasingly difficult challenge, as their control over the land continues to be whittled away to nearly nothing:

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Today, Israel is a client state of the U.S., which supports it with weapons (including nuclear weaponry), military machines, billions of dollars in economic aid, and unwavering support to do essentially whatever it wishes to the Palestinians, no matter how brutal. Israel in turn is a market for U.S. arms manufacturers, allows the U.S. military to use it as a base of operations, and consistently supports deadly U.S. foreign policy against Arabs and others around the world.

Quite predictable for a nation with no separation of church and state, Israel over the decades has left Muslims marginalized, victimized, oppressed, and exploited. Palestinians have been rounded up and removed from their homes, denied city services, excluded from government, and abused, kidnapped, and killed by the State. Many were forced from their lands and confined by military force onto the reservations of Gaza and the West Bank (not dissimilar to U.S. treatment of Native Americans). In one place (within Israel’s borders), Palestinians live under apartheid, in another (Gaza and the West Bank), countless innocents have been victims of bombing campaigns and invasions when the military giant that is Israel seeks revenge for terrorist attacks or decides to further chip away at Palestinian territory.

Let us first consider the worst crimes, those against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

In the West Bank, Israel breaks international law (repeatedly noted by the U.N. Security Council and the International Court of Justice, and even acknowledged by Israel’s highest courts in 1967; see Chomsky, Who Rules the World?as it annexes more Palestinian territory (usually the most valuable land in terms of resources and arability) and constructs settlements, overseen by the military. Israeli citizens are given huge state subsidies to build homes and businesses on Palestinian land, and receive protection from tanks and soldiers and new border walls. Palestinian poverty in the West Bank is nearly 60%.

In Gaza, 80% of residents are refugees. It is one of the poorest, most overpopulated areas on Earth. In 2014, 70% lived below the poverty line. Gaza has limited natural resources — making it less attractive to Israeli settlement, but still worthy of Israeli abuse. There is nearly no private sector. Its economy is strangled by economic warfare waged by Israel, which maintains tight restrictions on access to outside markets — a permanent blockade. For example, Israel at will banned the entry of construction materials into Gaza, despite a massive housing crisis, which left some 80% of factories in Gaza empty, sapping $500 million from Gaza’s economy.  

As Trudy Rubin writes:

Gaza’s men, women and children remain locked in a virtual prison. Since Hamas took control in 2007, Israel has kept the strip under an economic blockade; the Israelis control its sea space, airspace and borders, except for the Rafah crossing with Egypt. Gazans are rarely allowed to exit for medical treatment or to study.

Tens of thousands of Gazans who once worked as laborers inside Israel were locked out of Israeli jobs nearly two decades ago for security reasons. Unemployment is sky-high, and local businesses have been crippled by the blockade, or by previous battles between Israel and Hamas. Gaza lives off the international dole.

Noam Chomsky describes the situation in detail in Hopes and Prospects. Israeli shelling and military incursion into Gaza starting in 2006 destroyed homes, businesses, infrastructure. 80% of their crops were destroyed, and 96% of 1.4 million Gazans now depend on humanitarian aid — food, medicine, water. While Israel, its economic blockade total and complete, used to allow 4,000 commercial products to be shipped into Gaza before 2006, afterwards only allowed 30-40. It can cut off electricity (and water and sewage systems) to Gaza at any time, as it did in February 2008, threatening to cut a megawatt every week until rocket attacks against Israel by Palestinian terror groups stopped — essentially, punishing the many for the crimes of the few.

Israel can tighten the blockade in other ways. In late 2008, Israel cut off spare parts for water-related equipment for over a year, and from October to November 2008, reduced the humanitarian aid entering Gaza from 123 food trucks a day to 4.6 on average. In December 2008, water use was limited to 6 hours every 3 days, and electricity was scarce. Israeli bombings of power plants and sewage facilities have made near-shore fishing impossible — but the Israeli navy blocks Palestinian fishing boats from entering Gaza’s lawful territorial waters. Israel has also targeted ambulances and farmers trying to plant crops too close to the border (see Hopes and Prospects). 

Other crimes include preventing UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, from aiding Gaza during the Israeli siege of 2008-2009 (which killed about 1,500 Palestinians, 70% civilians; Israel lost 3 civilians, 10 soldiers); breaking cease-fire agreements even when Hamas and other enemies honored them, as in 2012, something Israeli officials even admitted to; and bombing refugee shelters, as in the 2008-2009 conflict (see Who Rules the World?). 

Although nearly all the world’s governments have agreed to recognize a Palestinian nation, two nations have consistently voted against this: Israel and the U.S. Palestinians are divided on the issue: many want one state, a state without an official religion, where a civil rights movement for true equality could be launched. To Israel, this is unthinkable. Other Palestinians favor their own nation, with their own government, their own laws, their own way of life. 

Palestinians within Israel itself are not a “free people.” Not as free as Israeli Jews, at any rate. They were subjected to military rule until 1966. Today, Palestinians are kept out of Jewish neighborhoods and contained in Arab ones. Arab neighborhoods don’t receive equal services — their streets and electric networks are left to deteriorate (Hopes and Prospects). As the Institute for Middle East Understanding documents, “there are more than 50 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel. directly or indirectly, based solely on their ethnicity, rendering them second or third class citizens in their own homeland.” A brief sampling of the types of discrimination include:

  • More than seventy Palestinian villages and communities in Israel, some of which pre-date the establishment of the state, are unrecognized by the government, receive no services, and are not even listed on official maps. Many other towns with a majority Palestinian population lack basic services and receive significantly less government funding than do majority-Jewish towns.
  • 93% of the land in Israel is owned either by the state or by quasi-governmental agencies, such as the Jewish National Fund, that discriminate against non-Jews. Palestinian citizens of Israel face significant legal obstacles in gaining access to this land for agriculture, residence, or commercial development.
  • Government funding for Arab schools is far below that of Jewish schools. According to data published in 2004, the government provides three times as much funding to Jewish students than it does to Arab students.
  • The Nationality and Entry into Israel Law prevents Palestinians from the occupied territories who are married to Palestinian citizens of Israel from gaining residency or citizenship status. The law forces thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel to either leave Israel or live apart from their families.
  • In November 2010 the chief rabbi of the town of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, issued a ruling forbidding Jews from renting property to Arabs. [In support, another rabbi said, “Racism originated in the Torah… The land of Israel is designated for the people of Israel.”]
  • In July, 2009, Israel’s Housing Minister, Ariel Atlas, warned against the “spread” of Israel’s Arab population and said that Arabs and Jews shouldn’t live together, stating: “if we go on like we have until now, we will lose the Galilee. Populations that should not mix are spreading there. I don’t think that it is appropriate for [Jews and Arabs] to live together.”
  • A poll done by the Israel Democracy Institute and released in January 2011 found that nearly half of Israeli Jews don’t want to live next door to an Arab.
  • According to a September 2010 poll, half of Israeli Jewish students don’t want Arabs in their classrooms, while an earlier survey found about the same number oppose equal rights for Arabs.

And so on. The U.N. condemned “harsher punishments for Palestinians for the same offense” in the Israeli criminal justice system (and the reverse: when a Palestinian girl named Intissar al-Atar was shot by a Jewish man, he did not go to prison, as the judge decided he only meant to scare the girl when firing at her, not kill her; see Who Rules the World?), discrimination by Israeli police, anti-Palestinian hiring practices, unequal education, housing discrimination, etc. “Within Israel, 48 percent of Palestinian Israelis live in poverty, compared with a poverty rate of 15 percent for Jewish Israelis,” to quote the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign. How all this goes should be quite familiar to Americans, given our racial history.

And, of course, so should terrorism.

One should not be an apologist for Hamas or the PLO, Palestinian groups that engage in terrorism, showing utter disregard for Israeli life, to end Jewish rule of Palestine. But one should not be an apologist for Israeli oppression, occupation, and murder either.

These things are intimately connected. Extremism and terrorism are often birthed and encouraged by brutal policies, not just religious hatred. Americans (at least those with any understanding of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East) understand that all too well. 

The Jews, supported by foreign powers like Britain and the United States, carved a nation out of land where many non-Jews lived too, and began immediately oppressing them, by law and with deadly force. Israel has killed two Palestinian children per week on average for the past 14 years (Chomsky, Who Rules the World?). Extremism and terrorism were predictable — a violent reaction to violent oppression.

Israel has a right to defend itself, but at the same time must change the vicious policies, military occupation, and atrocities that breed terrorism.

Insisting Israel uses all precaution to limit civilian casualties is just pandering to State power and parroting State propaganda. Israel has been accused of war crimes by the international community many times, and not without reason. Take the Israeli-Gaza conflict of 2014, which killed over 2,000 Palestinians (wounding some 10,000) and about 70 Israelis (over 500 wounded). The vast majority (the U.N. estimated 80%) were noncombatants. The High Commissioner for Human Rights at the U.N. called Israel’s bombing of civilians war crimes, and the U.N. Human Rights council voted to investigate Israel for crimes against humanity. There was only one “no” vote: the United States.

Like other battles between Israel and the Palestinians, terror attacks by the few justify the mass killing of the many. Israeli shells that rained down in Gaza did so indiscriminately, blowing up neighborhoods, shops, schools, hospitals. Hamas has indeed used homes and mosques and other public facilities to store weapons and plan their vicious terrorist attacks (where else would they do it?), yet it is important to remember Israel, like most states, has a history of bombing civilian areas, and even if all the civilians killed were collateral damage when destroying Hamas fighters or weapon caches, one still might ask: Should we tolerate the slaughter of innocents if it brings about the deaths of terrorists (as Presidents Bush and Obama seem to deem acceptable)? Among decent human beings, it is unacceptable for the State to slaughter terrorist enemies if innocent people burn in the same fires.

In any case, the death toll of innocent Palestinians is almost always far greater than that of innocent Israelis. This is because Israel has much better weaponry.

The residents of Gaza are bombed by cutting edge F-16 fighter jets and drones, yet they do not have bomb shelters, and they have nowhere to flee. Israel’s residents are bombed mostly by makeshift rockets, many of which have been intercepted by Iron Dome missiles. The majority of the population in Israel has access to shelters and can flee out of the rocket’s range.

Clearly, there are two types of terrorism. One is a group against a State. The other, a State against a group. We can continue to condemn horrific anti-Israeli terrorism. But we should also condemn brutal Israeli State terror. Oppose the atrocities of both parties partaking in a cycle of violence, from Israeli soldiers shooting 10-year-olds to Arab shooting sprees in busy Israeli markets.

Though peace is elusive, there is still much hope for it among Israelis and Palestinians alike. Look no further than a short statement released by the Jews for Palestinian Right of Return organization. These are prominent Jews from around the world who want to see an end to both Israeli terrorism and Palestinian terrorism: the statement was called “Apartheid Israel Doesn’t Speak for Us.” Then, look to the social media movements like Israel Loves Palestine and Palestine Loves Israel.

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